What We Did On Our Summer Vacation

Two Texans loose on the California Coast

Come along as we travel the west coast on our California vacation. You'll find all kinds of information and tips, so buckle up and let's get started...

Day 1: Saturday 06/08/96

We started the vacation by catching the red-eye flight out of DFW to San Francisco... a two-and-a-half hour flight, plus a two hour time change. We had some great scenery going out, though; you can see the Rockies over the engine of our plane in this photo.
After landing, retrieving a rent-a-car, and motoring down California Highway 1 we stopped in Moss Beach, CA, at the Moss Beach Distillery, a restaurant that is supposedly haunted. You may have seen it on NBC's "Unsolved Mysteries". We saw no ghosts, experienced no cold spots or taps on the shoulder, but we did eat a great meal. The restaurant overlooks the Pacific for a beautiful view.
The Drive down California Highway 1 is indescribable... we stopped every few miles for photos. Here's one of our favorites.
After a relaxing drive, we stopped at our B&B in Carmel (the first stop of the trip), the Vagabond's House Inn. It was a charming bedroom with an adjoining bathroom; we didn't understand why they didn't have air conditioning, until evening fell...
We ate dinner at Clint Eastwood's restaurant, the Hog's Breath Inn. In the open-air courtyard, there are fireplaces in every conceivable corner (which turned out to be very welcome as the sun set). We also had the best meal of the trip here.

Day 2: Sunday 06/09/96

The Vagabond's House Inn gave us a terrific breakfast, served in our room. The first morning it was a quiche with fresh strawberries and cream on the side, but each morning was something wonderfully different.
We started the day by heading a few miles up the road to Monterey. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is located on Cannery Row in Monterey, housed in a former sardine cannery. This is probably one of the best aquariums in the country, and we were duly impressed. Everything from jellyfish to sea otters, all up close and personal.
Cannery Row (that inspired John Steinbeck's novel) has become a tourist mecca, filled with a huge selection of shops. The cannery buildings are still intact, though, and there's a great opportunity for watching seals playing right off the shore.
Looking for a non-chain, non-commercial restaurant, we chose the Fish Hopper at the end of the pier. It was named for the old buildings that used to be linked to fishing boats known as "fish hoppers" that fed sardines from the bay to the canning factories. We had an enjoyable meal, and were able to watch seals that were sunning on a nearby clump of rocks.
We gave the famous "17 Mile Drive" mixed reviews... although there was some breathtaking coastal scenery (like you see here), there was a considerably long part of the drive where we had to go through residential streets; the traffic was also bumper-to-bumper through a lot of the drive, with few (if any) places to pull off and park at the scenic points.
Every day we went out on walking excursions through Carmel. There are over 70 galleries, with countless other quaint shops waiting for us. There are no street numbers... businesses give their addresses as "X Street between A and B Streets". Everyone picks up their mail at the local post office, and the worst crime that we found in the local paper's police register was that of a missing dog. All in all, a perfect town.
Jack London's is a small pub that we settled on for dinner. The entrees were acceptable, even enjoyable, but not a memorable experience. The pub is named for the owner's fondness for the writer, but no other ties are apparent there.
We ended the day back at our B&B, Vagabond's House Inn. This photo shows the courtyard, with a huge tree in the middle and a waterfall nearby that made sitting outside a relaxing experience.

Day 3: Monday 06/10/96

The Winchester Mansion in San Jose is a beautiful, but unique, place to visit. Sarah Winchester was the heiress to the fortune of the Winchester Repeating Rifle family, but she became convinced that the ghosts of all those killed with the rifles were haunting her. A medium convinced her that to appease the spirits, she had to keep the sound of hammers building in her house going 24 hours a day. She did that, and the sprawling house grew into a maze of curious rooms. To trick the spirits, she had false doors and cabinets put in, a staircase leading nowhere, doors that opened to open air, etc. The house was interesting, and the grounds were beautiful.
Our San Francisco Bed & Breakfast, "Molly's Place", was on the steepest grade street in the city (Filbert street - 31 degree slope). If you saw David Letterman's late night program during May, he chose Filbert street to roll various objects down for the camera (basketballs, watermelons, etc.). We climbed up the sidewalk (which was actually steps) twice, and from them on we had the taxis and cable cars deliver us to the *top* of Filbert street.

NOTE: Unfortunately, Molly's Place is no longer a B&B. We loved it, though!

This is a picture of Molly's Place, the blue building nestled in the trees. Our flat was on the second story; our temporary landlords occupied the top floor, while the first floor is being renovated for additional lodging. It was a beautiful place with a beautiful view overlooking the bay from a glassed-in sunporch. Other wonderful features were a gas fireplace, antiques and lovely wall-stenciling.
While we're generally leery of a restaurant whose tee-shirt and doo-dad market is really a profit center, the Stinking Rose actually delivered on the groceries. The meal was very enjoyable, and the appetizer of bread and cooked garlic was delicious. Our assessment: go here for dinner!
No visit to San Francisco would be complete without a trip or two on the cable cars. It's a unique San Francisco experience that we enjoyed, but the strategy is probably to avoid the long line down at the Fisherman's Wharf terminal (we stood in line about 20 min.) and just catch it somewhere along the line.

Day 4: Tuesday 06/11/96

One of the highlights of our trip was the Haight-Ashbury walking tour. About half of it was sixties nostalgia, while the other half covered the history (through both architecture and events). Well worth the visit, at $15 per person for a two hour tour with a knowledgeable and entertaining guide.
Our Haight-Ashbury tour guide recommended Cha-Cha-Cha's for lunch, and it turned out to be a great suggestion. The restaurant is very colorful, which may be the only thing that you can tell from this photograph, but it also has outstanding Caribbean food. We heard that the lines outside get long at night, but for lunch it's a nice stop.
We went to Golden Gate Park next, and walked around the Japanese Tea Garden, which was beautiful. A tea room is there, along with many relaxing trails through the gardens. We also stumbled upon a Faberge exhibit in one of the museums, showing the intricate work of his precious metals shop in St. Petersburg. It was an extremely lucky find for us.
The Golden Gate Bridge is a formidable structure. At the advise of friends, we walked halfway out on the bridge, and were overwhelmed. The wind was blowing, the bridge was swaying, our palms were sweating. Following the sidewalk out onto the bridge is probably the best way to appreciate this awesome bridge.
The Palace of Fine Arts (now the Exploratorium) is located at the northeast corner of the Presidio. The Exploratorium part of the building is a Science Museum that we weren't able to visit, but we were so intrigued by the structure (built in 1915 as part of the Panama - Pacific Exposition) that we had to stop and walk around it. The tall columns and rotunda were architecturally beautiful, and the stroll around the grounds was peaceful and relaxing.
We followed a recommendation and made reservations at Caffe Freddy's for our Tuesday dinner. If you're looking for McDonald's, TGI Friday's, etc, then don't bother eating here; this is an authentic Italian neighborhood restaurant loaded with atmosphere and culinary delights. The wine selection was perfect for our meal, the food was exceptional, and the service was extraordinary. Caffe Freddy's is on our permanent "re-visit" list.

Day 5: Wednesday 06/12/96

We got up early and took the boat to Alcatraz. It turned out to be one of the most interesting things that we did. The self-guided cassette tour added a lot to the experience, and after the two hours on the island we were both surprised at how much we enjoyed this National Park. One tip: buy tickets one day in advance by phone; otherwise, you may stand in line for hours or find a sold-out day and miss it altogether.
Although everything we read indicated that this was the *most* touristy thing to do in San Francisco, we couldn't resist the temptation to stop at the famous Boudin sourdough bread shop that we've always heard about. We greatly enjoyed being "tourists from Texas" and sitting outside and eating chili in a sourdough-bread bowl.
Ghirardelli Square, right off Fisherman's Wharf, used to be the home to the famous chocolate company. It is now a collection of unique shops and restaurants, but the thing that we really enjoyed about the square was locating one of the bronze signs that provided the history of the square and taking the walking tour. Each sign gives a different aspect of Ghirardelli Square's history, and then points to the next sign. Relaxing and Enjoyable. Our favorite shop (being dog lovers) was the "Beastro by the Bay", a shop where we bought a bunch of Basset-related items.
As you are working through the city and step on a cable rail, you can hear the cable moving beneath the street. A visit to the Cable Car Museum illustrates exactly what makes the cars move, and lets you see the heart of the San Francisco Cable Car system. Well worth the trip.
Chinatown is a world apart from your standard San Francisco. We took a self-guided walking tour from a travel guide, stopping at parks and monuments, browsed through some of the unique shops, and saw wonderful architecture in the neighborhood.
We went looking for a local brewpub and found the San Francisco Brewing Co., which had four microbrewed selections. Good beer, with the exception of the wheat which was overhopped to our taste.
Pier 39 is full of tourist traps and specialty shops, and quite honestly we had a good time there. Hands down, though, the best thing were the seals out sunning on the floating piers. With our basset hounds back in Texas, their barking made us homesick.
We ate dinner on Fisherman's Wharf at a place called Houlihan's; it's located on the top floor of this building. It seemed to take itself too seriously, although the view on the bay was wonderful. The food was okay, but the service was poor. All in all, not a memorable experience from the trip.

Day 6: Thursday 06/13/96

We packed up the rental car and left San Francisco... Tami is standing on the slope of Filbert street - we're loading up the car for the drive to the Wine Country.
Everyone advised us to go to at least one winery where sparkling wine is made, so we chose Domaine Chandon. The tour was personalized and interesting, and the sparkling wine was wonderful. There are no sample tastings, but instead you may purchase sparkling wine by the glass or case in their hospitality room. We enjoyed our visit there.
Our third and final bed & breakfast, La Belle Epoque, is a Victorian style house where each bedroom has a private bath. We later found out that the gourmet breakfasts change daily, along with the china, and the evening wine tasting is a perfect chance to mingle with the other folks at the Inn.
We found out about Downtown Joe's (a brewpub) from our hostess at our B&B (she even had a menu). We tried their sampler of a bitter, a lager, an ale and a dark, and were impressed. They also served good food, which made for a memorable evening in downtown Napa.

Day 7: Friday 06/14/96

Several people had recommended Sterling Vineyards, which was located up in the hills of the Napa valley. You get to the winery by Sky Tram, and at the winery they have a self-guided tour that was well-organized (unlike some of the others we found). The winery itself is beautiful, and the view of the valley is a panoramic wonder. After the tour, complimentary tastings of current Sterling offerings are available in an elegant Tasting Room.
The Calistoga Inn is a Bed & Breakfast / Brewpub where we stopped to sample the local brews. The outdoor dining patio of the Inn boasted three beers: a lager, a red ale and a wheat. The lager was very light and crisp; their wheat was hopped incredibly out of style to our taste (a trend among the wheats we found on this trip), but there was a delicious, malty red that we enjoyed.
We were planning on visiting Beringer Vineyards since it's a wine that we enjoy at home. It wasn't until we arrived in Napa, though, that we started hearing raves about the winery and tour. As it turns out, the raves were well deserved. The oldest winery in the valley with a beautiful estate house (turned hospitality house), aging caverns and striking landscape made this a nice stop. The wine was good too, but we knew that already...
We took in an early dinner at the Rutherford Grill, a local place on Highway 29 with a good selection of entrees. We caught it early enough that it wasn't too busy, but it looked like a place that could get crowded as the evening progresses.
The St. Supery winery advertises that it stays open until 6:00pm, but in actuality the tours stop much earlier. We arrived in time to take the self-guided tour, then buy tickets for the wine tasting, but in both cases we were underwhelmed. The one thing that makes this winery most interesting is that it has an olfactory experience that lets you focus on the smells that make up the nose of most wines. It presents you with the scents that you encounter when opening various types of wine. Other than that, there wasn't much here. The grounds were pretty and you can walk out into the vineyards.
We were lucky enough to be in town for the Napa Farmer's Market & Street Festival. Fresh fruit & veggies, samples from all the restaurants in town, and lots of unique merchandise booths, all in the heart of the city of Napa.
We stopped back by Downtown Joe's where we were able to spend some time with the assistant Brewmaster, who gave us a personal tour of the brewery (the brew tanks are shown in the photo). It was a wonderful evening, discussing barley, hops, brew temperatures and beer styles.

Day 8: Saturday 06/15/96

CakeBread Cellars was the premier wine stop of our trip. The staff was very friendly, making our visit very personal and enjoyable. The wines were memorable, and will be a new addition to Casa de Whitington. This is a small, beautiful winery that should be a stop on any visit to Napa Valley. The tours are by appointment only, though, and they fill up fast... it's worth the planning time, though.
Grgich Cellars had been highly recommended to us, but the tours were also by appointment only; not only did we not have one, but we didn't have time to make one. We looked around the tasting room, paid the $3 tasting fee and enjoyed five of their offerings.
We stopped in at the Niebaum-Coppola Estate, Vineyards & Winery to find that the tours were not being held due to remodeling. We enjoyed tasting their wines, though, and got to look at a preliminary Hollywood museum that he is adding to the winery. The tasting fee was $5, but that covered six different wines. The staff was also very friendly and informative. A good vineyard, a good product, a very enjoyable stop.
The Hess Collection might possibly be the most disappointing stop of the trip. There is a collection of severely *abstract* art there, with what seemed to be a poorly organized/documented self-guided tour of the winery. To cap it off, an expensive (yet minimal) tasting of two current wines offered by Hess. The highlight of the tour was a singular view of their vineyard in the hills, shown here.

As a side note, however, we were impressed with their wine that we often include it on our table at home. Maybe we'll give the winery another chance on a return visit.

After walking around Hess, we climbed back into the rental car and headed back to San Francisco International Airport to return home to Texas.

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